Rape sparks patriarchal backlash in India

Standing outside the arts faculty of Delhi University, young men and women drink tea and ready themselves for protest action.

They are from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organisation that claims more than two million members in India and supports a strongly conservative, nationalist agenda.

"We want to make our country and its traditions and morals stronger … and through that make our sisters and mothers safe," said Sachin Chandela, 21, who joined the ABVP shortly after the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student last month.

The case has provoked outrage and anger, coming against a background of rising violence against women in India. Reported cases of rape have more than doubled in the past 20 years, according to official data, with women being victims of a high proportion of other violent crime.

India's supreme court last week declared Delhi "unsafe" for women. But the gang rape case has also led to a fierce and unprecedented debate on attitudes to women in India. Those who say radical social change is essential to make women safer are clashing with conservatives who say the opposite. Some characterise the confrontation as a "culture war".


"There is a conflict and its location is what women can and cannot do," said Shoma Chaudhury, the managing editor of news magazine Tehelka. Many conservatives maintain "capitalism and consumerism and growing individualism" have led to "decay in the society". Often "Westernisation" is blamed.

Such views expose the cultural and social tension created by the rapid pace of economic change in India in recent decades.

Chillingly omnipresent
"Almost as shocking as the Delhi gang rape has been the range of voices that have sounded after it. Patriarchy is chillingly omnipresent," wrote Sagarika Ghose, a TV journalist and commentator.

There is fear the gang rape could lead to further restrictions on women rather than greater emancipation. Students at Delhi University spoke of new pressure from the family to avoid public places or "going out". The government of the union territory of Puducherry in the south was to order all schoolgirls to wear overcoats to "protect them" until a public outcry forced a U-turn. Delhi police advised women students to "go straight home after college".

Since the rape, a series of village councils in northern India have banned girls from using mobile phones, wearing "decadent" dress or dancing at weddings. "Almost every villager pressed us to ban the mobile-phone use, saying they are … dangerous for the society and corrupting local culture," said Sushma Singh, the local village ­council head in Matapa, Bihar.

Such attempts to control women's behaviour are rooted in anxiety and the weakness of the Indian state in protecting its citizens, said Reicha Tanwar, of Kurukshetra University, in the northern state of Haryana, where sex ratios are among the most skewed in India.

"When female foetuses are routinely killed, it is not surprising adult women are also viewed as disposable," Tanwar said. "Women cannot be protected by the state, so it is understandable people are looking for other solutions."

Liberal consumerism
Governance is weak and policing patchy in much of rural India, where 70% of the population lives. All of the six on trial for the gang rape and murder were born in poor, deeply conservative, lawless rural areas before going to Delhi. But the ABVP and other rightwing organisations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which claims between four million and five million members, see rural India in a different light.

"Rape in traditional India was never heard of, certainly not gang rape. It is an imported concept," said Manmohan Vaidya, a top RSS official.

Many of the increasingly frequent gang rapes have been perpetrated by young, poor, unskilled, often semi-literate men who are low in the tenacious Indian caste system and find little place in new Indian cities, some commentators have argued. Others blame the values of "liberal consumerism". Chaudhury said the fallout from the most recent incident had "consolidated the conservative view" even if it had inspired a newly "assertive and self-confident expression of feminism". Her magazine recently surveyed male attitudes in India.

"Modernity is seen only as wearing skimpy clothes, not plurality and the assertion of the individual's rights. There is agreement even from conservatives on issues such as women working. [The conflict] is all over sexuality," Chaudhury said.

The fault lines run deep. Even at Delhi University, the students are at odds. "We want to be [economically] developed but without losing our culture," said Neha Singh (22) an ABVP activist. Standing under a Delhi police poster that reads "Being a woman should not make you feel vulnerable", student Kanika Sharma (19) disagrees.

"It is all about the mentality of the boys. They think because they are men, they can do anything. But girls should have equal rights and opportunities." – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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Jason Burke
Jason Burke works from in transit, probably. Africa Correspondent of The Guardian, author of books, 20 years reporting Middle East, South Asia, Europe, all over really. Overfond of commas. Dad. Jason Burke has over 38885 followers on Twitter.

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